When a pandemic spreads across the world like wildfire causing hundreds of thousands of deaths, remoteness and difficult access due to geographical location can turn into an advantage. This was true for the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu which has remained COVID-free until now. Scattered across 83 islands, most of the country’s 300,000 people have been out of the deadly virus’ reach.
Nevertheless, with its role on the front line in the fight against COVID-19, the United Nations (UN), through its different agencies stepped up in its efforts to ensure the protection of citizens in Vanuatu, with extremely limited health and medical care resources. The UN response to the crisis has brought to light an example of how agile management enables a small project with a very specific focus to create a profoundly transformative impact on the entire nation.
Such is the story of the Vanuatu Electoral Environment Project (VEEP) implemented by the UN Development Programme (UNDP) and funded by the Government of New Zealand, in response to a request by the government for technical assistance to strengthen democratic practice.
The VEEP Project focused on strengthening electoral system to conform to international standards and resolving problems with a deeply defective electoral roll and strengthen political stability. Launched in 2017, VEEP was set up specifically with this mission and it became evident that other related issues were at stake, in particular the country’s civil registry.
While its main focus was to support the Vanuatu Electoral Office and Commission, VEEP quickly scaled up its work to include a massive nation-wide joint civil and voter registration effort, including the issuing of national identity documents (ID), giving citizens a legal identity for the first time in the nation’s history. Capitalizing on new digital technologies the project deployed data collectors with electronic tablets to capture biometric data of citizens while data capture works round the clock to enter the data in the central system.
The National ID card is now commonly in use for various official purposes such as opening a bank account, accessing government services such as enrollment in education as well as voting. At this time of crisis, it has become a vital tool in managing the pandemic response and the roll-out of the vaccination programme.
Etienne Ravo, Deputy Director of Civil Registry and Vital Statistics (CRVS) said, “There are many, many benefits of the National ID card, in particular when it comes to the health and safety of our people. With accurate records of where the population is, during natural disasters like Tropical Cyclone Harold in 2020, we can organize evacuations, track populations and internally displaced persons (as a result of disasters) and allocate relief and stimulus packages.”
“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the world how important it is to be able to identify people to help prevent the spread of disease,” said Ms Ravo.
As the citizens of Vanuatu are called to come forward to join the vaccination programme, VEEP, with its national partners and UN agencies is working to optimize the contact with the population. “Meetings were held with UNICEF, WHO, and the Ministry of Health (MOH),” explains Anne-Sofie Gerhard, VEEP’s Chief Technical Advisor and Project Manager, “and we are exploring requirements for the health sector and how to appropriately and securely link data in the CRVS with health data. We are also working with other departments in the Ministry of Internal Affairs to analyze further requirements and implementation strategies to get vaccination operations going.”
VEEP is providing support to the CRVS Department and MOH for the procurement of ID cards consumables, security lamination rolls, ribbons, additional cards etc. As people come forward, they are invited to check and update their data, using a state-of-the-art self-service ID card scanning system that the VEEP provided.
Mr. Karel Haal, Health Economist of the Vanuatu Ministry of Health noted “the vaccination rollout, and health care system in general, are largely benefiting from the support given by CRVS and VEEP. Their support has resulted in a high level of data accuracy during the vaccination and a professional operation. Moreover, the increased National ID coverage will allow the Ministry of Health to implement an improved patient information system in the coming years”.
As a result, in Vanuatu, there may be a silver lining to what is otherwise a global tragedy. The pandemic has spurred an effort to break down population data silos in different ministries and improve coherent management across the administration.
“We are starting to work on linking Ministry of Health data with Civil Registration data to ensure continuous accuracy, including birth and death registration. Based on comprehensive formal agreements, the CRVS Department has also given other departments and the Ministry of Education access to the central database for verification purposes,” said Gerhard.
The initiative showcased the positive impact made on one sector contributed to strengthening other areas for effective governance. Through VEEP, UNDP supports Vanuatu’s advancement in targeting the Sustainable Development Goals.